Commentary for Va’etchanan

19 Aug

This week’s parshah contains the Shma (Deut. 6:4), which is the only verse in the entire Torah with two enlarged letters.  While there is a well-known midrash that the letter ayin at the end of the word shma and the letter dalet at the end of the word echad are enlarged because together they spell the word “eid,” meaning “witness,” to show that we are all witnesses to God’s uniqueness as the only true God in the universe, there is also a much more practical reason attached to enlarging one of the letters.  The letter dalet (ﬢ) at the end of the word echad is enlarged so as to prevent someone from mistaking it for the letter reish (ﬧ), which would change the word “echad” (singular) to “acheir” (another), and thus cause the famous verse to be blasphemously misread as “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is another.”

Preventing the Jewish People from somehow mistaking God with someone or something else is a major theme of this week’s parshah.  The second of the Ten Commandments, which prohibits the creation of idols, is read this week (along with the other nine, starting at Deut. 5:6).  Deut. 4:15-19 is an expansion of this prohibition, specifically prohibiting images of humans or animals, as well as a warning not to worship the sun, moon, or other celestial bodies.

This last bit, when combined with Deut. 4:1-14’s preface of the section, gives us an interesting perspective on where the Israelites were standing in the grand scheme of world history up until that time.  4:1, spoken by Moses, reads “Now, O Israel, listen to the decrees and to the ordinances that I teach you to perform, so that you may live, and you will come to possess the land that the Lord, the God of your forefathers, gives to you.”  The rest of the section is filled with the standard stuff you would expect about obedience to God and acting righteously and remembering all of the things God has done and so on and so forth.  Included in this is a warning in 4:9 to “beware for yourself and greatly beware for your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have beheld and lest you remove them from your heart all the days of your life,” which is then used to transition into a brief recap of the giving of the Ten Commandments, before Moses brings it back around full-circle in 4:14, saying “the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you decrees and ordinances, that you shall perform them in the land to which you cross to possess it.”

The warning which Moses gives the Israelites in 4:19 about not being “drawn astray into bowing [the celestial bodies] or worshipping them” specifically cautions the Israelites to avoid the very same trap that midrash teaches us that the descendants of Noah fell into which allowed God to be forgotten by humanity until Abraham rediscovered monotheism many generations later.  When the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they will be in the same situation as Noah’s children were.  They will have seen the great wonders God performed for them in the desert, but the children they raise will not have seen those wonders.  It will be up to them to instill a love of and fealty to God in children who have never seen the clear and obvious work of God firsthand.  And then those children must instill that love and fealty in their own children, and they in theirs, becoming more and more removed from the irrefutable evidence of God’s existence that the Israelites witnessed in the desert.  It took less than ten generations for Noah’s descendants to lose all connection to God who spared their ancestors from the great flood.  Now the Israelites were being given this same task, but with many more foreign influences to be led astray by.

This Shabbat we read the first haftarah of consolation, marking the beginning of the build-up to the High Holidays.  Just as our ancestors found themselves facing a challenge that had been failed the last time it was attempted, so do we find ourselves facing a challenge we have failed at before.  Despite our pledges at the beginning of the year, we have not been perfect.  Not only have we sinned, but we have likely committed even the sins we had said we would try our best to refrain from committing in the future.  The High Holidays are coming around again, which means that we have another chance.  Like the Israelites, we must heed Moses’ warning, and prevent ourselves from repeating this year’s failures next year as well.

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